Christians throughout history have used hymns in churches and at worship-gathering settings to help instill the Word of God to those attending. Hymns are especially loved because they tell of the Gospel and the beauty and love of Jesus in a memorable and appealing way.
Hymns and truth-filled songs minister to hearts, uplift spirits, provide hope and strengthen the faith of both singers and listeners. They teach theology, concentrate on the goodness and saving grace of Christ, and take the focus off oneself and help the individual to concentrate on Jesus.
Unfortunately it seems that there is hardly a church you can go to anymore to hear these classic hymns of the faith sung in a classic way—with an organ, or a choir, or even with a string ensemble or orchestra. These epic hymns and songs deserve more of an epic sound. More and more the great hymns of the faith are being ushered out or played in a contemporary music style, even presented as a well-performed rock concert. The worship service then becomes a spectator event with a performance environment.
This does not mean that modern/contemporary praise songs should not be presented and sung in a church service. There often seems to be just an either/or situation, resulting in diminished respect and consideration of the overwhelming power of the beautiful epic hymns. In some churches they are never sung again in a classic way. To forestall a “worship war”, there could be a cooperative melding of the two. Taking sides and expressing a personal single-minded preference for one way or the other borders on displaying a moral superiority, and that’s a form of idolatry!
In the next few stories we’ll take a look at the history of some of these great epic hymns…where and when and by whom they were written… their “story” so to speak, to learn how they have brought the Gospel message to so many over the years.
HOW GREAT THOU ART
The text was written as a poem by a Swedish pastor named Carl Boberg. He had recently quit his work as a sailor and started working as a lay-minister in his native Sweden (he would later go on to be a newspaper editor and a member of the Swedish Parliament). It was the year of 1886, and he was visiting a beautiful country estate when he was caught in a sudden thunderstorm. He gave this account of that day: “It was that time of year when everything seemed to be in its richest colouring; the birds were singing in trees and everywhere. It was very warm; a thunderstorm appeared on the horizon and soon thunder and lightning. We had to hurry to shelter. But the storm was soon over and the clear sky appeared. When I came home I opened my window toward the sea. There evidently had been a funeral and the bells were playing the tune of ‘When eternity’s clock calling my saved soul to its Sabbath rest.’ That evening, I wrote the song, ‘O Store Gud.’” The words were put to an old Swedish folk song and sung in Swedish congregations.
An English missionary to the Ukraine, Rev. S. K. Hine, came across the song and translated the words into English, Russian and German. He also added a verse to the song. He and his family were forced out of the Ukraine when the war broke out in 1939.
The Gideons tell the story about Tim Spencer, who was a member to the Sons of the Pioneers (of Roy Rogers singing fame). Spencer lived an unsavory life of smoking and drinking, but his wife was always in prayer for his salvation. When he left on a trip with the singing group, she gave him a note that included a verse of scripture. When he checked into a hotel, he found a Gideon Bible on the night stand to look up the verse she had written. He read the Bible until he gave his life to Christ that night. He later founded the Christian publishing company, Manna Music. Several years later his son was at a youth rally where the group was taught a new hymn; he asked the leader of the rally for a copy of the Swedish hymn they had learned. The boy showed it to his father, who then secured the rights and published the song. That song was “How Great Thou Art”, which was then introduced to the English speaking people of the United States and soon became very popular.
In 1954 the song found its way into the hands of George Beverly Shea, who sang it nearly 100 times during Billy Graham’s 1957 New York crusade. In 1959 It became the theme song for Billy Graham’s weekly radio broadcast and the signature hymn of the Billy Graham Crusades. Billy Graham favored the hymn because it glorifies God: “It turns Christian’s eyes toward God, rather than upon themselves. I use it as often as possible because it is such a God-honoring song.”
How Great Thou Art – The Lyrics
O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
Chorus: Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!
When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.
And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing;
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.
When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation,
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.
Then I shall bow, in humble adoration,
And then proclaim: "My God, how great Thou art!"
The performing rights organization ASCAP named the song as “The All-Time Outstanding Gospel Song” in America in 1978. It has consistently been listed as one of the greatest hymns ever written, usually falling at #2 (right behind Amazing Grace).
Carl Boberg never knew about the influence of his poem, as he died in 1940. How astonishing that this song, recorded over hundreds of times in the last fifty years, had its origins as a poem in a small town in Sweden, written by a sailor turned lay-minister, and somehow wound its way around the globe.